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After Modern Architecture

Architecture has always contained references to conceptual qualities, such as symbolism, which the modernists carefully suppressed. But these characteristics are a consequence, not a starting point, of the process by which the design of a building both responds to the functional program it is supposed to carry out and achieves its expressive content. Whatever conceptual strategies may be in play, they are a function of traditional architectural devices such as scale and ornament. References from other disciplines have as little relevance to architecture as the old canard about Gothic buildings being like frozen music. (It takes a truly absurd idea to have that much enduring popular appeal.) Such borrowings serve, more than anything else, to give a pretentious gloss to bad buildings.

The visual metaphor is a very small hook to hang buildings on, and irony doesn’t hold up well on the average street. Minoru Takeyama’s hotel-as-phallus in Hokkaido hardly recalls an ancient Shinto sexual symbol to the average viewer, even if the symbolism is carried through to the ashtrays. To say, as Charles Jencks does in Architecture Today,3 that the gifted and witty Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman uses suggestions of buttocks and pianos in his “Hot Dog,” “Daisy,” or “Animal Crackers” houses to evoke an “ironic acceptance and celebration of consumer madness” stretches both architecture and credulity. (See page 29.) It really doesn’t do much for the houses, either.

If in the beginning, however, there is the word, in the end there is the building, and the building is what counts. It must stand and be used without theoretical scaffolding. It must carry constant values as well as accommodate changing interpretations and needs. Every theoretical system eventually disappoints, or is outgrown or left behind, and the disillusion and rejection are greatest where the aspirations have been the highest. Its fallacies and failures are inevitably perceived and trumpeted by the next generation. Because this gap between generations born into different worlds is so much more than a matter of taste—because the division involves such deep feelings about art and society—the split between the modernists and the postmodernists is particularly bitter. If one lesson should have been learned it is the danger of the codification of building according to any theoretical construct for use as a prescribed system of design.

Surely the most painful failures of modernism stem from its pious, optimistic simplicities; its saddest lesson has been the confirmation of the foolishness of faith. But if the democratic idealism and elite paternalism espoused by the leaders of the modern movement and the machine-art cures of the Bauhaus did not eliminate the world’s ills through design, if pseudoscientific nostrums turned out to be less than surefire, some of us still find ourselves touched by the modernists’ concern for the human condition. Architects were no more misguided than those who set the course of political and social change. Intellectual noise is a poor substitute for a willingness to take risks for a vision of laudable, if impossible, ends.

Architects may be the last of the innocents—dazzled by intellectual discourse, awed by articulate argument, they are really not all that much at ease with words. To subordinate the unique gift of conceptual vision to nonvisual data and reasoning is to lose the philosopher’s stone by which they turn utility into art. The architect’s most glorious and valuable asset is his “eye”—an eye tuned to the infinite nuances of light and form, surface and space, mood and meaning. By instinct, inclination, and training, the architect’s eye responds to the elegant rationale of structure; otherwise architects would be painters or sculptors—and the line, in fact, is sometimes very close.

But buildings differ from sculpture in that their generating and formative mechanism is a practical program; they are the working, three-dimensional realization of a pragmatic set of requirements. Architecture is the one art that serves society and the spirit equally.

The point at which the architect’s eye and intellect meet, when the architectonic sensibility must deal with considerations of purpose, space, and time, is critical. The degree to which the designer is able to synthesize the formal and functional elements of the building determines the measure of his buildings. But the sources are almost always visual or derived from the experience of other buildings. It is to these other buildings that the architect looks, openly or secretly, for solutions to specific problems, for enrichment of the design vocabulary, and, above all, for inspiration. I have seen architects of modernist or postmodernist conviction, scornful or adulatory of the past, stand speechless and withdrawn, lost in absorbed admiration before the great buildings of Berlin, Paris, or Rome, in or out of fashion.

The “ideas” of the English architect James Stirling, for example, who has been much in the international press as a prize-winning designer on the leading edge of the new, can be traced to the buildings he admires, not to the theoretical discourse that surrounds him. There is a great deal in Stirling’s work that is exploratory and ambiguous—obscure, arguable juxtapositions of style and meaning occur as he moves from polished high-tech to a romantic techno-history. The transition was undoubtedly aided by Leon Krier, whose singleminded attachment to the styles, forms, and techniques of the preindustrial age is matched only by the evocative imagery of his delicate drawings. At one point, Krier worked in Stirling’s office, and the influence seems to have been lasting and one-way. Stirling’s experimental, hybrid aesthetic, which relies strongly on his subjective responses, is as booby-trapped with potential failure as the earlier modernist work that strove in different ways for new expressive dimensions. If optimism and confidence were characteristic then, ambiguity and uncertainty are common now, when the most remarkable buildings may break new ground with disastrous side effects, with gains in some areas balanced by losses in others. Paradox and irony are probably as close to truth as we dare approach it today.

What Stirling understands is that the lessons of great building still apply, even in the vortex of change. His acceptance speech for the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1980 was dissertation on the sources of his own development.4 This is no litany of abstract ideas; it is a wideranging paean to the state of the art as defined by some of its best buildings, for which he feels a special sympathy. If one studies the examples he admires, they all fall into periods of change and difficult synthesis. The work that intrigues him includes the buildings designed during the transition from the neoclassical to the romantic styles in England and France in the first half of the nineteenth century, the powerfully unconventional expression of Baroque elements in Hawksmoor’s London churches, and the vibrant geometry of Russian constructivism. In the light of these models, all of which stress conflicting forces resolved into a dynamic whole, Stirling’s love of a kind of structural and cultural bricolage of sometimes arbitrary and mysterious connections, and the challenges that he sets for himself, are better understood. Over the years, the high skills and brilliant variations of all these prototypes have been tucked away as part of Stirling’s visual and visceral baggage. His architectural ideas, as ideas, are not all that complex, whatever overlays of fashionable polemics may be added to them.

But Stirling’s use of these sources is not simple at all, and the results are neither easy nor traditional eclecticism. The references may be employed directly or obliquely; the way they are combined seems guaranteed to shock. In the design for the Tate Gallery extension in London, for example—which has been the subject of much controversy—a recessed, pediment-shaped entrance enclosing a revolving door is likened by Jencks to the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, although no literal detail remains, while the stonework and segmental window above are compared to George Dance’s Newgate jail. (See opposite page.) All this sits together in an image not easily forgotten. Stirling’s design for Harvard’s Fogg Museum in Cambridge. Massachusetts, has a glass and metal entry flanked by cooling towers like space-age classical columns, the whole framed by overscaled quoins. Inside the entrance, stone walls, floors, and false columns evoke a templelike, archaic solemnity. What one most admires is an enviable mastery and combination of primary design elements—such as plan, scale, and telling detail—at the moment when a new style is evolving.

That architects learn best from other buildings does not mean theory has no place in their work. The marriage of polemics and practice has a long and honorable tradition. Architecture has always had a relationship with the avant-garde, which, in this century, provided genuine points of convergence between the visual and building arts. The development of new technology fed revolutionary concepts about the organization of society and individual expectations; industrial advances were to give the workers power and create a better world. These were ideas that appealed to the pioneer modernists; they underlay the machine aesthetic and the teachings of the Bauhaus. All this interacted naturally with building on a previously unknown scale. Utopian philosophy was a rational ally of radical change and massive new construction.

Nor is it unusual in architecture for theorist and practitioner to be the same person—a notable phenomenon in “modern” times from Serlio to Le Corbusier. The books of Serlio and Palladio were enormously and lastingly influential; but by modern standards they were very limited editions that dealt directly and personally with the basics of building and style, and they traveled with dignity and reasonable speed—taking centuries rather than months—into the mainstream. But if theory is not integral to the conceptual architectural vision, the results will always be marginal as architectural art.

It was not until the rise of the nineteenth-century scholar-critic that attention was focused on “objective” historical definition and stylistic sources and criteria, rather than on the basic requirements for building fashionably and well. And it was with the rise of the twentieth-century tastemaker-critic, in conjunction with the modern press, that aesthetic criteria were overwhelmingly emphasized. The introduction of this judgmental mediator between producer and consumer was a response to the cultural anxieties and the demands for interpretation from a new, mass audience that was part of a growing consumer society—a situation encouraged by the sense of mission of an elite intelligentsia. The argument, still offered, is that this made the consuming public more aware of, and knowledgeable about, art. Not least, it also created a new market.

The process never served the conjunction of pragmatic and spiritual values that architecture uniquely encompasses. It tended instead to reduce complex architectural factors, never easy for the public to understand, to a simplistic system of formal aesthetic cues by which one could tell what was acceptable or fashionable. The signals were clear: a flat roof and flat white walls, large strip windows held taut to the surface as part of the infill of a light, flexible frame, an asymmetrical plan and entrance, and ramps and roof gardens if the budget permitted. The prime example and symbol in this country was the Museum of Modern Art in New York, by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward D. Stone. There were also a few small Massachusetts houses by expatriate architects Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, in which the International Style was wed to the New England vernacular. But the celebrity of the new style was owing to those prestigious intermediaries—the critic, the museum, and the publisher. This influential endorsement had an inevitable effect on architects’ work.

  1. 3

    Published by Harry N. Abrams, 1982.

  2. 4

    See James Stirling: An Architectural Design Profile, by James Stirling, Robert Maxwell, and others (Academy Editions/ St. Martin’s Press, 1983).

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